Recently, a hit TV series in China called Nothing but Thirty, which portrays the everyday life and challenges of three 30-something women living in Shanghai, went viral on Chinese social media.
In one of the episodes featuring a social event, one of the main characters sports a Chanel 2.55 bag while the other tai-tais tote more expensive Hermès Birkin bags. The group of smartly-dressed socialites post the commemorative photo-op on social media but edit out the Chanel bag from the picture.
There has long been a rivalry between Chanel and Hermès on which fashion house is the epitome of opulence.
According to the elite group of upper-class ladies, her unfortunate choice of designer bag disqualifies her from being front and center in the photo. Chanel 2.55 bags cost around S$10,000 while Hermès Birkin bags start at S$22,000.
The woman, affected by the snub, goes on a desperate search for a Birkin bag to make up for her fashion faux pas and to fit in with her Hermès-loving friends.
Fact or fiction: Singaporean women are materialistic?
Although I do not watch much TV nowadays, let alone one in Mandarin, the synopsis from Nothing but Thirty had me thinking about similar stereotypes that Singaporean women usually get flak for – that we spend thousands collecting designer bags, are materialistic, and are hard to please.
There has been much speculation over the stereotype. Could it be a by-product of our country’s rapid modernisation such that women (and men!) have elevated material definitions of success to the nth degree? Or is it an evolution of the dated derisive moniker “Sarong Party Girl”, which refers to ethnic Asian women who exclusively date or socialise with white men (usually the upper class) for potential monetary or social benefits?
Singaporean women today are also perceived to be more highly educated and career-driven.
A disclaimer before I go further: The only designer bag I own is a Longchamp Le Pliage Cuir, which costs S$570 on its official website. It is a beautiful crossbody bag, made from Metis leather (a mix of lamb and cowhide) in a unique shade of emerald green. I love it for its minimalist look and the feel of its leather.
I bought it in 2012 but hadn’t used it for a long time since the kids came along.
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Recently, I had a Nothing But Thirty moment when a relative casually remarked to my husband in front of me: “Why don’t you buy your wife a branded bag?”.
The comment left me stunned and my husband, dumbfounded. While I appreciated the well-meaning intention behind the question from said relative, I couldn’t help but get a sense of being judged. Have I been scrutinised or judged by what accessory I’ve been carrying all this while?
The comment left my husband scrambling for an excuse and I found myself needing to speak up to protect his integrity. But why did we have to do that in the first place?
Keeping up with the Joneses
It is remarks like that from people around us – relatives, friends, colleagues – that make us feel pressured to act or look a certain way, just so that we can belong or be “keep up” with others.
It can also cause a lot of unhealthy comparisons, as in the case of this anonymous poster who wrote on NUSWhispers’ Facebook page about her partner:
“Sorry I just need to rant… Recently my boyfriend bought me a Louis Vuitton wallet which costs around $700 for my birthday. When I saw the wallet, I felt really upset and disappointed. Because earlier this year, my sister’s bf got her a Chanel wallet which costs at least $1,000 for her birthday. Chanel is so much nicer than LV. Let’s be honest, LV is for poor people who want to look rich. And during this CB, her bf always orders food from more popular restaurants like Crystal Jade and Paradise Dynasty for her. But my bf only orders food from cheap restaurants like Swensen’s and Ichiban for me. Her bf even gives her $1,000 a month for her own spending. But my bf only gives me $500 a month. I hate to admit but I really feel very jealous of my sister because her bf is willing to spend money on her despite earning just $4k a month. My bf earns at least $5k and yet he is so stingy with me. Sometimes I really feel like a loser… why my sister can find such a good bf but I just cannot. Just because she is taller and slimmer, she can find a good bf… it’s so unfair. Sorry for the long rant.”
Naturally, many netizens were quick to criticise her materialism and lack of gratitude.
Keeping up with the Joneses could also potentially lead to some financial ruin if we try to live beyond our means and end up struggling financially.
Be true to yourself
We cannot deny that carrying high-end designer bags from the likes of Gucci, Prada and LV, among others, projects an image to others – that we are affluent, sophisticated and successful.
But success may mean different things for different people.
Similarly, when we carry a reusable bag, or a tote made from vegan leather, it projects an image that we are eco-conscious and activists for Mother Earth. That may very well be the definition of success for some.
Like it or not, what we wear and how we carry ourselves have an effect on others around us. We do get judged on how we present ourselves to the world. It is naive to think otherwise. But in the same vein, it is shallow to think that appearance is the only thing that matters.
We can avoid being too brand conscious but instead look out for the intrinsic value of what we are spending on – it could be the superior craftsmanship, to support disadvantaged groups in Singapore or even to recognise local artisans in developing countries.
Spending on expensive goods or preferring to live simply is your prerogative, but don’t forget to be true to yourself and what defines you. Don’t be pressured into conforming to what other people’s idea of success means, but also don’t impose your values onto others.
I would love to own a handcrafted Birkin, but it is just not practical right now because if I did a ‘What’s in my bag’ video, you’d find my kids’ water bottles, their extra sets of clothes, a couple of packets of wet wipes and plenty of their toys. Why would I use a S$22,000 bag for that?
I’m better off with a bag that can withstand the spills and bruises that come along with doing everyday mum-things. And I’m perfectly okay with that, because to me, success is knowing that my life is full of abundance with or without material things. And my hubby knows that too!